Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

After the Pandemic, It’s Time to End the Marketisation of the Public Sector

Covid-19 has seen plenty of empty rhetoric about 'key workers,' but unless the public sector is judged by its contribution to care and community little will change – and that means an end to the market ethos.

In a Downing Street press release from this January concerning the ‘significant uplift in key public sector jobs’, Boris Johnson expressed his admiration at the ‘care, fortitude and determination’ of frontline workers across the pandemic.

Affirming his ‘unwavering’ commitment to increased public sector recruitment, he used the release to call on ‘those looking for jobs or a career change to consider frontline public sector roles.’ This idea—that gratitude alone will drive public sector recruitment—appears across the government.

Putting aside the fact that upticks in recruitment figures appear inflated due to staff returning to work during the pandemic, the reported increases in applications are insufficient to fix chronic staff shortfalls and are distributed unevenly across the various public sectors.

The government focus on increased recruitment also obscures that this is equally a crisis of job retention – a 2019 study found that a third of newly qualified teachers left the job within their first five years, while a survey from March 2021 found that one in four healthcare workers—about 330,000 people—is more likely to leave after the year they’ve faced.

Given the varied nature of jobs covered by the umbrella of ‘public sector’, it can be difficult to characterise all the reasons behind this crisis, and as such the narrative is often reduced to generalisations of overwork and underpay. But those factors exist within an ideological structure – one attested to not least by the fact that this crisis hits women and ethnic minorities the hardest.

In their 2021 article ‘The alchemy of austerity’, John Clarke and Janet Newman make the case that the 2008 financial crisis was ideologically reworked from ‘an economic problem (how to ‘rescue’ the banks and restore market stability) to a political problem (how to allocate blame and responsibility for the crisis).’

Central to this process was the creation of the problem of public debt as a means to justify fiscal consolidation, premised on the idea that under the Labour government the public sector had grown costly and bloated.

Clarke and Newman argue that the twin ideas of ‘unaffordable’ and ‘unfair’ were used to vilify public sector workers as a ‘major drain on public finances as employees’. Bypassing the established procedures of collective bargaining, public sector workers have thus borne the brunt of government consolidation policies, through a combination of pension reforms, wage freezes, and pay caps that represent real-terms cuts.

A Constant Struggle

The abandonment of public sector employment as a guarantor of stability has meant many state jobs now resemble the precarity of private sector work.

27-year-old Lydia found her job as a biomedical scientist at a Covid diagnostic lab in London through a recruitment agency. With her day shifts running from 8am to 7:30pm, and night shifts from 7pm to 6am, she feels that the focus is on ‘burning people out for the maximum amount of profit or hours worked.’

Her work requires her to complete one type of test, over and over again. ‘I’ve been left with a repetitive strain injury in my wrist,’ she says, ‘but I’ve been feeling so guilty about taking sick leave because I know it’ll leave my team short-staffed.’

The overwhelming rise of insecure contracts, reliance on agency and temporary staff, and ‘downbanding’ makes workforce planning more difficult, contributing to a lack of investment in training. Although Lydia has a masters degree in Science Communication, to progress in her current job, she would have to pay for a costly accreditation in a biomedical course.

‘Is it worth me investing money when the pay rise isn’t worth the financial investment?’ she asks. ‘Why aren’t we training up the staff who are there to gain skills? It’s because the workers are seen as disposable commodities, so there’s not the support to see people as potential who are loyal to the job.’

Alice, also 27, has just handed in her notice at the primary school where she has taught for the last five years. ‘The last week of the February half term, I cried every day,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t cope. I leave for work at 6:30 in the morning and don’t get back till 7:30 in the evening most days.’ When Alice spoke to her school’s Head about going part-time, she was told that they just couldn’t afford it.

This move towards the utilisation of short-term labour, as opposed to an emphasis on qualifications and training, has meant that jobs have been rapidly deskilled and deprofessionalised. As Alice put it: ‘I’m a teacher. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m not a therapist. I don’t have those skills that they need.’

24-year-old Roxy spent ten months as a tutor at a training centre in Edinburgh, where school leavers aged 15 upwards would be referred to gain skills and qualifications.

Expressing herself in strikingly similar terms, she says: ‘I was a teacher, careers advisor, social worker, advocate, mediator, babysitter, chaperone. I was fulfilling these separate and distinct roles that should exist in their own right, but had become just one role that was paid a fraction of what it should be.’

In an essay titled ‘The New Neoliberalism’, Will Davies observes the government assumption that ‘public-sector productivity can alleviate the losses associated with austerity’; in other words, public sector employees are expected to compensate for cuts through increases to their workload.

This has meant the expectation to do more for less isn’t merely a byproduct of a stressful working environment, but a structural feature of public sector employment.

Alice, who is a subject lead at her school, attests to this demand. ‘I haven’t been able to buy anything for my subject this year,’ she says. ‘My budget has been £0. We need stuff for electrical circuits, and I can’t buy it. It’s either coming out of my pocket, or we just don’t do that subject. And it’s on the national curriculum, so we’ve got to teach it.’

She continued: ‘My job was the thing that gave me purpose, but the fact that it gave me purpose became a demand. The extra bit that I put in has now become an expectation.’

As Sarah Jaffe notes, while ‘essential’ status might have emerged from Covid, ‘health care workers and teachers have long known the particular pressures of being “essential” even as their work is devalued.’

The double-bind of the key worker, which Jaffe terms finding your labour simultaneously invaluable and devalued, represents an intensification of the dynamics used to construct public sector workers at large. Alice says, ‘There’s this assumption that we all do it because we’re all good people, but that dismisses the real problems that children and teachers are facing.’

For Lydia, there’s a fear that key workers have been unwittingly used as guinea pigs – that the resilience of key workers will be recast as the standardisation of the level of stress acceptable for public sector workers to face all the time.

‘It’s like national service,’ she explains. ‘You’re supposed to be a hero, but inside you’re screaming that you can’t do it anymore. It’s the same narrative for doctors, nurses, and teachers. The narrative is that we’re bionic. But we’re human.’

Counting the Pennies

Changes to labour practices reflect changes in finances, and reform measures brought in as part of austerity have resulted in the marketisation of public sector services, including the growth of reliance on contracts and alternative funding.

For Roxy, this meant much of her time was devoted to meeting arbitrary accountability standards. ‘There were frequent spot checks from the different agencies who were funding us,’ she says. ‘They would visit and check all the paperwork, and if there were any discrepancy, they would withdraw funding for each form that wasn’t correct.’

Securing this funding trumped the principal responsibility to assist those in her care. ‘There were rewards for young people going on to a “positive destination”: our organisation got £1,000 if they went into an apprenticeship, £800 for a job, and only £100 if they went into further study. So even if they’d really have benefited from going to college, we would strongly advise them not to, because our funding wasn’t as good.’

This emphasis on business and employability above all else left Roxy feeling her role was ‘the private sector with a public sector exterior’.

The withdrawal of the welfare state means public sector workers are confronted daily with realities of economic insecurity. Welfare state retrenchment has been accompanied by what Becka Hudson terms the ‘militarisation of care’—the supplanting of caring institutions like schools or hospitals with state institutions that rely on control, neglect, and violence—meaning that public sector workers are increasingly responsible for vulnerable people who might otherwise find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system.

When a student who had been previously excluded was enrolled at Alice’s school, there were severe issues with funding. ‘We love him, but he is very disruptive, which makes it difficult to teach the rest of the class,’ she says. ‘We didn’t have a teaching assistant for him for his first four months, because we didn’t have the funding. The school has had to sacrifice funding from somewhere else to give him the right support, which means another child is now not getting enough support.’

As a tutor, Roxy tells me, ‘We had to cut children’s allowance if they didn’t turn up. We’d take off 25 percent, which was £15. Often that would have an impact on their ability to eat.’

The Chance for Change

On a discursive level, the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has drawn on many of the same political sensibilities as the 2010 financial crisis.

Clarke and Newman’s assessment that ‘the promise of hardship and the memory of post-war collective solidarities’ was what enabled the government in 2010 to justify austerity, and therefore the decimation of the public sector, as a ‘virtuous necessity’, is equally applicable to the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic: on 7 March, in reference to the widely derided 1 percent pay rise for NHS workers, Boris Johnson said that the government was offering ‘as much as we can at the present time,’ adding that the country is ‘in pretty tough times.’

But the pandemic, in allowing for discussions around the social value of work beyond profit, could play a part in rebuilding the public sector. In September, the TUC released a report titled ‘A plan for public service jobs to help prevent mass unemployment’, calling for the government to create 600,000 jobs in public services along with a ‘parallel commitment to improve conditions.’ Think Tank Autonomy is calling for a 32-hour week in the public sector.

Rather than allowing the government to present the crisis as able to solve itself through market forces, these bold and innovative suggestions instead show what could be the generative potential of the pandemic. As Lydia tells me, ‘It shouldn’t have to be this hard.’